OK, so I’m warning you – this is not a happy-go-lucky post. But it’s a real part of expat life, and so I’m blogging about it. Deep breath . . . .
One of the Ambassadors DiploDad worked for once recounted a story. He was sitting at a table with a psychologist/sociologist at a function. The guy was doing some kind of research or paper or informal survey (I forget which) concerning FS folk. The Ambassador leaned over and essentially asked him to give him the punchline. The guy said, “Every single one of you is running to something, or from something.”
It’s true, on some level, I think. Most of us, even those with other considerations, are running to adventure – the kind you only get from leaving everything behind that is comfortable, familiar, and habitual. Let’s be honest: it takes a special kind of person to do that, and to do that for YEARS.
But I think that a lot of us also find this life attractive for other reasons, among them, family. Some have had crappy divorces in their families. Some have toxic families. And some of us (yes, me) love our families, but Lord Almighty, we just never really fit in, and found a kindred spirit who also wanted to strike out on their own and explore. It’s Chuck-It-All-And-Don’t-Look-Back Lite.
Distance over the years, physical distance, has given us chances we might not have had otherwise. As the Dixie Chicks sing, you need Wide Open Spaces – room to make a Big Mistake. It also gives us a chance to keep things from family, either intentionally or not, and to avoid the family dramas that come up when you fall into the third category mentioned above.
When I first started “trailing” I missed my family like I would miss a leg. There are still family members I miss SO much I sometimes cry. Like, buckets cry. But slowly I realized that this distance, or time zone challenges, could make the relationship smoother, because I wasn’t there to get involved with things when someone did something boneheaded, or decided to pick me apart for whatever reason, or just didn’t respect appropriate boundaries. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about – family dynamics are family dynamics, after all.
I find that I can simply fall off the face of the earth for a while and no one really, truly notices, because they could shrug it off as “she lives in X”.
Distance gives me a modicum of privacy, some of which I’m about to throw bare here.
DiploDad and I were able to navigate some very painful waters when trying (and failing – again and again) to have our children without having a nail-biting mother making unintentionally insensitive comments to our face. Or a sibling throwing a pity party for us when we were actually having a good day. We were able to grow together as a couple and emerge out on the other side. We were able to bury our son with support but without the knowledge that everyone in the Parish, neighborhood, and sewing circle would forever be there with a reminder when we didn’t want to think about that day. We didn’t need to worry what anyone else would think or feel when an epic meltdown ensured. We were able to have holiday dinners and birthdays without anyone obsessing over the next steps. And we were able to be a unit and to heal as best as one can under these circumstances.
We are able to parent our children without interference, or without the occasionally snarky comments we get and that really everyone gets from well-meaning folks. We are able to shield them too from that relative or neighbor who thinks Fox News is the greatest resource on earth instead of the hate-filled, inaccurate diatribe it is. As a result, my DiploBoys have values closer to Bernie Sanders than Paul Ryan, and thank God for that.
We are able to build a life together outside of the cage of our childhood, which I think that most people never truly get out of. Even we have to fly back home to the roost sometimes. But in the interim, if that means if we want to wear African braids as an experiment or let our kids eat street food and run around germy surroundings with wild abandon without being discussed, we can do it. And we do. If I want to swear, or wear a bikini with my post-baby tummy poking (far) out without the pursed lips and lectures about modesty, I do it.
I am relatively free to be the extroverted, sometimes “inappropriate” (not my words) person that I am without worrying what the constraints of family and neighbors would think. I can experiment, and fail, and my failures aren’t known unless I am stupid enough to share them. I think I manage this pretty well. I see other Colorful Birds in Expatland and wonder sometimes if they were drawn to this life for similar reasons.
There are negatives to this distance beyond the obvious. Sometimes, because you are not constantly in their face, any shred of news or information, no matter how personal, is fodder for the family gossip mill – which you may not have even been aware existed. Sometimes, it allows the person you’ve actually put in Relationship Time Out to feel justified in their indignation. Sometimes, you wish you could share something but are learning that when you do, you’ve grown so far apart in values, point of view, and experiences that you know there’s just no point in it. They’ll opine, judge, and wring their hands. So you swallow another secret, or put on your Big Girl Panties and deal with it alone. Even if it hurts. Even if you want their guidance. You accept that sometimes, they can’t do it, even if you really, really wish they could, but you know it’s just too much for either of you.
Distance can be hard, but distance can also be your friend. Especially when what you are running to is someone you understand who understands you, and has chosen a similar life of distance.